Canada's Trudeau mending fences with Trump as election fight looms

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will seek to further mend fences when he meets Donald Trump in Washington this week, a year after the U.S. president stormed out of a G7 meeting calling Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron (not seen) at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/Pool

Trudeau had angered Trump at the time with his response to a question about the tariffs Washington slapped on Canadian steel and aluminum. “Canadians are polite and reasonable, but we will also not be pushed around,” he said.

For Trudeau, Thursday’s meeting with Trump still has risks about four months before a Canadian national election. Trump is deeply unpopular in Canada, especially among supporters of Trudeau’s Liberal Party, and notoriously unpredictable.

But maintaining a good rapport with the United States, and keeping one of the world’s largest trade partnerships on an even keel, is considered the top job for any Canadian prime minister. Trudeau may find he needs all the diplomatic tact he can muster.

“For Canadians, there is no bigger issue than the United States-Canada relationship,” said Frank Graves, a pollster at Ekos Research. “People are relieved and kind of happy that the problems with Trump were an abnormality, and not a shift in the relationship.”

Since last year’s G7 meeting hosted by Canada, it has reached a deal with the United States and Mexico on trade, Trump has lifted the tariffs on imports of Canadian aluminum and steel, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touted Trudeau’s tough negotiating skills during a visit to Ottawa last month.

“It’s important to show Canadians we can have a good relationship with an administration that has very little in common with us ideologically or politically,” a Canadian government source said.

Trudeau, 47, has been trailing in the polls, largely because of fallout from a scandal within the Liberal Party, and he risks becoming the first prime minister to lose power after a single majority mandate since the 1930s in the election set for October.

He has clawed back some support recently, but any big setback in U.S.-Canada relations at the meeting with Trump, 73, could undermine his fight for re-election.

“The risk for Trudeau is that you never know what Trump will do,” said Darrell Bricker at Ipsos polling.

“Or Trudeau could be seen as not being hard enough on Trump. The hardest thing for Trudeau will be to walk between the raindrops and find the right balance,” Bricker said.

After his recent threat to impose tariffs on Mexico, Trump’s focus has shifted from North American trade to restarting trade talks with China, a burgeoning crisis with Iran, and gearing up for his own re-election campaign.

Canada has been caught in the middle of the U.S.-China trade dispute, and Trudeau will be seeking Trump’s support to press for the release of two Canadian citizens arrested by China and charged with espionage, officials in Ottawa said.

The two were first detained after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, the world’s largest telecoms network gear maker, on a U.S. warrant in December.

After a hard-fought negotiation, Canada, Mexico and the United States signed a replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in November 2018. Forcing Mexico and Canada to scrap NAFTA was one of Trump’s signature pledges during his 2016 election campaign, but he could now use a hand getting the new trade deal ratified.

The Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is pressing for improved enforcement mechanisms for labor and environmental standards before she signs on to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) agreement.

Trudeau is going to meet with Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell after he sees Trump to lobby for a rapid USMCA ratification, two congressional aides and sources in Ottawa said.

“We will never be totally safe on trade while Trump is in power, so we need to build up momentum given the recent improvements in bilateral ties,” a second Canadian government source said of the Washington visit.

Reporting by Steve Scherer, additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Tom Brown